Father of son with mental illness is advocate for mentally ill Clark County inmates

From The Columbian, February 23, 2014

A retired Episcopalian priest who moved to Vancouver from Columbus, Ohio, a dozen years ago, Don Greenwood has found a second calling.

Mental health advocate Don Greenwood poses for a portrait at the Clark County Jail in December. The dormitory-style pod will soon be used to house inmates close to their release date, which will create more room elsewhere in the jail for inmates with special needs.

Mental health advocate Don Greenwood poses for a portrait at the Clark County Jail in December. The dormitory-style pod will soon be used to house inmates close to their release date, which will create more room elsewhere in the jail for inmates with special needs.

Greenwood, the parent of a son with a mental illness, has become a successful advocate for mentally ill inmates in Clark County.

Pushing for change in a facility as rigid as a jail has required the patience you’d expect from a retired priest, as well as persistence. There’s still a lot of stigma about mental illness, Greenwood said, and it has taken a long time to convince jail administrators that changes really need to be made.

In 2012, Clark County Sheriff Garry Lucas pledged to county commissioners, who were concerned with an uptick in suicides, that he’d take a new approach with mentally ill inmates. The commissioners’ concern was prompted in part by Greenwood, who had met with then-Commissioner Marc Boldt and then-Administrator Bill Barron.

That year, the jail had four inmates commit suicide, up from three in 2011 and one in 2010. Also in 2012, a mentally-ill inmate killed by custody officers in what was ruled an accident while officers were trying to restrain him.

Among improvements overseen by Lucas: arranging closer supervision of inmates on suicide watch; replacing shower nozzles with ones inmates can’t use to potentially hang themselves; increasing mental health services; and, most recently, securing money from county commissioners to hire two additional discharge counselors to connect inmates upon release with community organizations that have volunteered to help.

All changes have been with input from Greenwood, who said there’s plenty more work to be done.

Jail Chief Ric Bishop said Greenwood, a past president of the local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, has helped officials understand the challenges faced by mentally ill inmates.

“Don has been a conduit for us between NAMI and the jail,” Bishop said. “We’ve opened our doors and given him an unfettered tour. It’s been a pleasure to work with him, it really has. He’s helping us improve. We couldn’t have made some of the progress we’ve had without him.”

Greenwood’s strength, Bishop said, has been he understands that communication works both ways.

At the same time he’s been advocating for inmates, Greenwood has been willing to hear about challenges created by the jail’s design, budget constraints and the stressful conditions inherent to working with an incarcerated population.

Greenwood emphasizes he doesn’t want to be anybody’s “buddy” at the sheriff’s office, but said he’s sought to strike a balance between lobbying for change and having an appreciation for the security measures the county must have in place.

“It is really rough to have a family member in jail,” he said. At the same time, nobody on the outside understands what it’s like to work in the jail and how quickly things can get out of hand.

“You have to understand the system,” Greenwood said. “You have to be able to put yourself in their place.”

NAMI support

Greenwood and his wife, Anna, moved to Vancouver in 2002 to be closer to family members spread around the Pacific Northwest. They joined the local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, an organization they’d belonged to in Ohio. The oldest of their three sons, now 50, has had different diagnoses over 33 years, including borderline personality disorder and schizo-affective disorder — “diagnosis is a tricky business,” Greenwood said — and they liked the support and education they received from NAMI.

In Vancouver, he became president of the organization in 2006, a position he kept for three years. Through teaching classes and hosting support groups for family members of someone with a mental illness, Greenwood came to hear stories about how poorly inmates were treated at the Clark County Jail.

People would also call the NAMI office, he said, seeking help for relatives who’d been incarcerated.

Greenwood didn’t have first-hand experience — as he’s never had a family member in jail — and he was alarmed about what he was hearing.

One night he received a phone call at home late at night from someone he knew through NAMI.

He was asked to go deliver the heartbreaking news to a mother that her mentally ill son, who was out of town, had committed suicide.

He went, and stayed with the mother until family members arrived.

“I feel God is calling me,” he said. “Now I realize this is what I’m here for.”

He added that he doesn’t often talk about his mission to other people. He and his wife take vacations, and they are enjoying being retired.

“It’s no big deal,” he said of his advocacy.

He first requested to tour the Clark County Jail in 2007.

The jail opened in downtown Vancouver in 1984 with 306 beds; it has been retrofitted and modified to add beds. In 2013, the daily average population was 626.

For Greenwood, seeing the inside was eye-opening.

“There was no distinction between hard-line criminals and a mentally ill person who might be having a psychotic break,” Greenwood said. And unlike state-run prisons, where local inmates go if sentenced to serve longer than one year, the jail does not have an exercise yard or programs for inmates to help them blow off steam or pass the time and keep their mind engaged.

The same year Greenwood took his first tour, custody officers reported that overcrowding and insufficient staffing was making it difficult to properly follow all of the safety and security rules. The problem isn’t unique to Clark County.

Nationwide, there are three times more seriously mentally ill people in jails and prisons than in hospitals, according to a 2010 study by the National Sheriff’s Association and the Treatment Advocacy Center. The study also found that in 1955 there was one psychiatric bed for every 300 Americans, and by 2005 there was one psychiatric bed for every 3,000 Americans.

Those statistics show that jail administrators need to acknowledge they are running a treatment facility, not a warehouse, Greenwood said. Encouraging change in a locked-down environment has been difficult.

“I’ve been learning how to get along to be an effective advocate in a culture that has been set for many years,” he said.

He recalled one of his first meetings at the sheriff’s office, when a sergeant gripped his hand in a firm shake. Greenwood introduced himself, and the sergeant said, “Yes, I know who you are.”

“My name was familiar,” he said.

Crisis training

Last summer, Greenwood accompanied Sgt. Jack Huff and mental health coordinator John Furzy to a five-day crisis intervention training at the National Institute of Corrections’ Training Center in Aurora, Colo. The training was paid for by the NIT; a requirement was that the county had to have a NAMI advocate as part of its team, Bishop said.

The training include role play, and Greenwood found himself in the part of a custody officer.

Inmates were played by local law enforcement officers. They were very convincing, Greenwood said.

Greenwood had to stop a suicidal inmate from jumping off a balcony, reassure a paranoid inmate that his food was not poison and he should eat it and try to get a hysterical inmate back into a cell.

“You couldn’t just say, ‘Go back to your cell,'” Greenwood said. “You’d have to say things like, ‘I’m going to talk to the chaplain or mental health coordinator, and I’ll get back to you,’ or, ‘I understand how you feel. Don’t give up.'”

The training was a great lesson, he said.

The county’s on a waiting list for the NIT to send a team to Vancouver. The goal will be getting all custody officers 40 hours of crisis intervention training, which Greenwood considers overdue.

“It makes their jobs easier if they can learn how to talk the person down … they are in less danger of being hurt,” he said.

Huff, who runs the jail’s classification unit, said the philosophy of how to handle mentally ill inmates has been changing. Isolating them does more harm than good, he said.

Huff made the comments in the jail’s H-Pod, a dormitory-style pod where, as part of a new program, up to 45 inmates nearing release can meet with representatives of social services to try and get their lives on track.

The new space also creates more room for inmates with special needs in other parts of the jail, Huff said.

The jail does have a pod for inmates classified as suicidal, but making sure inmates are correctly classified has been a problem.

Huff said he wishes he had 10 Greenwoods.

“I need more people in the community with a voice, so we can get more resources,” Huff said.

Furzy has been the jail’s mental health coordinator for nearly two years. In that time, weekly hours spent with inmates has increased from 80 to 120, and the jail switched medical providers, resulting in inmates getting medication faster after they are booked.

Furzy said he likes working with an underserved population “that other people don’t like working with,” and said Greenwood has been instrumental in jail improvements.

“He gets in the trenches,” Furzy said. “He wants a better world for the mentally ill.”